State, media compare notes

REACHING OUT: A South African National Editors' Forum delegation met President Thabo Mbeki, Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, government spokesman Themba Maseko and health minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria on Sunday. Pic. Peter Mogaki. 17/06/07. © Sowetan.
REACHING OUT: A South African National Editors' Forum delegation met President Thabo Mbeki, Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, government spokesman Themba Maseko and health minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria on Sunday. Pic. Peter Mogaki. 17/06/07. © Sowetan.

Ido Lekota

Ido Lekota

Six years ago, government representatives, led by President Thabo Mbeki, met members of the South African National Editors' Forum (Sanef) at Sun City.

At the meeting both parties acknowledged that there was an unacceptable level of mistrust and animosity between them.

In the words of the Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad, the government saw the media as being in the "naming and shaming game, regardless of the impact its so-called story has on the national psyche".

The media, on the other hand, blamed the chasm between the two sides on the government's inability to communicate effectively. The feeling was that the government was withholding important information that could empower the public, because of its mistrust of the media.

As a way forward the parties identified the roles that each could play in contributing towards the bigger project of democratic transformation.

Last Sunday a group of editors had another meeting with government representatives, including Mbeki.

At the meeting there was consensus that progress had been made when it came to, for example, government sharing information with the media.

Both parties agreed that communication had improved between all spheres of government since the establishment of the Government Communication Information System (GCIS) and that this benefited the media in accessing important information on government programmes.

The parties agreed that there had also been an improvement in the media's access to government officials, including ministers and the president.

There were, however, areas of concern raised by both parties.

Pahad once again raised the issue of the media's responsibility as a corporate citizen.

"Are there assumptions to be made about the media's responsibility as a corporate citizen which should, to any degree, override an otherwise unchallenged right to free expression?"

Taking the discussion further Pahad said that even if both parties did not agree on what constituted the public or national interest, at least the very essence of a free democratic society demanded that the parties should engage openly and honestly about the issue.

Pahad said any abuse of power, whether by the media or the government, would lead to loss of credibility.

He suggested that the media was falling into the trap of misusing its power and misinforming the public.

"Though making up a proud Fourth Estate which is rightly opposed to any government interference, the media surely also carries the basic responsibilities of citizenship,'' he said.

Sanef chairman Jovial Rantao said that the parties should continue to engage and try to find answers to the question of what constituted national and public interest.

The positions articulated by Rantao and Pahad constitute the nexus of the ongoing contradictions in the relationship between the parties

Both sides agreed that the media had an important role to play in informing the public.

They also agreed that the media should be professional and accurate in doing so and not abuse its power of influence.

Pahad suggested that when the media erred this could be because of factors such as:

l The pressure of the bottom-line, whereby the owners of the media interfere with editorial independence to enhance profit;

l Professional incompetence where a journalist failed to verify facts;

l Ideological disposition where the media took a particular position against the government.

While this could be true, the worst case scenario is when the government takes a position that the media is generally negatively predisposed towards it. Why? Because of the dictates of the media owners' perceived neo-liberal agenda.

This leads to the government seeing a lion behind every bush, thereby undermining the nation's ability to engage with itself.

The government's position is that information released by the media should be weighed against the national interest and specifically that it should not undermine the bigger national transformation agenda.

The media, on the other hand, argues that the public interest is the driving force in its dissemination of information.

Its commitment is to inform the public so that it can make informed decisions and choices.

For the media an informed public is an empowered public. And an empowered public is a prerequisite for a vibrant democracy.

If, for example, South Africa was at war, the media would perceive its responsibility as being to inform the public about the course of the war and its consequences. If the media saw its responsibility as being to glorify the war, as the US and British media did after the Iraq invasion, then it would have relinquished its historic mission to inform by telling the truth.

As Rantao said: "We believe that one of the best ways of acting in the public or national interest is to continue to play our role to inform and educate the public as well as to remain a watchdog on their behalf."

Certain specific issues also received particular attention at the meeting.

The media expressed concern about the Film and Publications Amendment Bill. It was agreed that the media had the right to lobby the National Council of Provinces to reject the bill. It was also agreed that a meeting between Sanef, Home Affairs and GCIS officials be held soon.

It was noted that despite meetings between Sanef and the Justice Minister and her predecessors, media concerns about the provision of Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act remained. It was agreed that Sanef, the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, and GCIS representatives would meet within a month.

Both sides agreed on the importance of self-regulation for dealing with such issues and it was noted that the media would continue to take steps, including training and the application of its codes of ethics, to minimise the publication of inaccurate information.

It was also agreed that internships and the exchange of personnel would foster mutual understanding of how the two institutions dealt with information and communication.